Italian Unification

I. Introduction

Italian Unification or Italian Risorgimento, series of political and military events that resulted in a unified kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Italy was left completely fragmented by the settlements reached at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The Congress divided territory among the victors of the Napoleonic Wars, a conflict from 1799 to 1815 between France, led by Napoleon I, and a number of European nations. Many Italians had admired Napoleon for his victories over the Austrians, whom the Italians disliked, and for the republican ideas that took root in the parts of Italy controlled by the French during the Napoleonic Wars. The settlements reached at Vienna, however, restored Austrian domination of the peninsula, although the Kingdom of Sardinia recovered Piedmont (Piemonte), Nice, and Savoy and acquired Genoa.

Italy in 1815 faced three obstacles to unity. The first was the Austrian occupation of Lombardy (Lombardia) and Venice in the north and northeast of the Italian peninsula. The second was the Papal States, the principality under the sovereignty of the pope; the Papal States straddled the center of the peninsula, cutting the north off from the south. The third obstacle was formed by the existence of several independent states. On the French border was the Kingdom of Sardinia, also called Piedmont-Sardinia, which had slowly expanded since the Middle Ages and was the most advanced state in Italy. The Kingdom of Sardinia consisted of the region called Piedmont in northwestern Italy and the island of Sardinia. The Kingdom of the two Sicilies occupied the southern half of the peninsula and the island of Sicily. Other small states were the duchies of Tuscany (Toscana), Parma, and Modena, all governed by relatives of the Habsburgs, the family that ruled Austria. In each of these states, the monarch exercised absolute powers of government.

II. The Revolutionary Phase

Before 1848, a desire for the unity, or even the independence, of Italy was limited to a small section of the aristocracy and the middle class. Among the latter were many retired army officers who had fought with Napoleon. By 1820 these groups had formed secret societies, the largest of which was the Carbonari. They were perhaps more concerned with securing constitutions from their absolutist sovereigns than with any national aim, but some of them certainly wrote of a single country they called Italy. In 1820 the Carbonari spearheaded revolutions in the Kingdom of the two Sicilies and in the Kingdom of Sardinia. More serious revolutions broke out in Bologna in 1831 against Pope Gregory XVI, and in the small duchies of Parma and Modena. All of these uprisings were put down by Austrian armed intervention.

The revolutionary movement acquired its nationalist character through the work of the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini. He believed that Italy should be not only independent, but also an integrated republic. In 1831 he organized Young Italy to spread the ideals of nationalism and republicanism to the Italian people. Its goals were education and insurrection, and revolutionary cells were formed all over the peninsula. In the Papal States, a liberal Pope, Pius IX, was elected in 1846. He immediately began an extensive program of reforms. An amnesty was proclaimed for political offenders, political exiles were permitted to return, freedom of the press was introduced, the highest government offices were opened to laypeople, and a consultative chamber was created to suggest new reforms. The pope's example was followed by the rulers of Lucca, Tuscany, and the Kingdom of Sardinia. Instead of slowing the revolutionary movement, however, the reforms of 1846 and 1847 only intensified it, culminating in the Revolutions of 1848, a series of uprisings in France, Germany, the Austrian Empire, and parts of northern Italy. These revolutions were generally attempts either to establish constitutional government or to gain independence for a particular nationality.

The first of these revolutions on Italian soil took place in the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, where the King was forced to grant a constitution for the whole of his kingdom. In the Papal States, Pius IX was denounced by radicals for failing to join the war of national liberation. A popular insurrection in Rome caused the pope to flee the city in November 1848. In his absence, the temporal power of the pontiff was abolished and a republic was proclaimed. In the Kingdom of Sardinia the nationalists called for a war of liberation to drive the Austrians from Italian soil. After some hesitation, King Charles Albert of Sardinia mobilized his army and marched to the assistance of Lombardy, which he entered on March 26.

In the spring of 1848 it looked as if the independence, if not the unity, of Italy was an immediate possibility. However, the Piedmontese were defeated by the Austrians, and Charles Albert abdicated; he was succeeded by his son, Victor Emmanuel II, in 1849. In spite of a heroic defense by the Italian nationalist revolutionary leader Giuseppe Garibaldi, the new republic in Rome was destroyed by French intervention in July 1849. Only in Sardinia did constitutional government survive the pressures in the region to restore monarchical governments. In 1852 Count Camillo di Cavour became prime minister of the Kingdom of Sardinia. His subtle, opportunistic, and flexible policy led to the unification of Italy in little more than a decade.

III. The Diplomatic and Military Phase

Cavour's policy was to secure for the Kingdom of Sardinia the diplomatic and military support of Napoleon III, the French emperor. Napoleon and Cavour secretly planned a war against Austria. By the spring of 1859, Cavour had created a crisis that led the Austrians to send an ultimatum demanding Piedmontese disarmament. Cavour rejected the ultimatum and, in the subsequent war, the French came to the aid of the Piedmontese. The Austrians were defeated in the two battles of Magenta and Solferino and were forced to surrender Lombardy, with its great city of Milan, to Napoleon III. Then in 1859 Napoleon placed Lombardy under the sovereignty of Victor Emmanuel II.

In a series of elections during 1859 and 1860, all the states in the northern part of the Italian peninsula, with the exception of Venetia, which still belonged to Austria, voted to join the Kingdom of Sardinia. In the space of less than two years, the Kingdom of Sardinia under Victor Emmanuel II had more than doubled its size. Napoleon III was alarmed by the size of France's new neighbor. Napoleon's unease was soothed by Cavour's decision in 1860 to cede to France the Sardinian provinces of Savoy, near the Alps, and Nice, on the Mediterranean coast. This decision was unpopular in Italy, and it enraged Garibaldi, who was born in Nice. After 1860, the only French presence on the Italian peninsula was in the city of Rome, where French troops remained at the request of the pope.

Garibaldi was the hero of the next phase of Italian unification. In May 1860, he sailed for Sicily in two small ships with a force of just over 1000 volunteers. Their campaign was successful in Sicily first, and then in Naples, which Garibaldi triumphantly entered on September 7, 1860. The Kingdom of Sardinia was sympathetic toward Garibaldi but maintained a policy of neutrality until it appeared that Garibaldi was about to send his army into Rome, which was protected by French troops. Cavour did not want to antagonize Napoleon III. To regain the initiative, Cavour went to war against Pope Pius IX, who had abandoned his liberal views. With Napoleon's consent, Cavour moved his forces into the Papal States. Soon afterward, in late 1860, two-thirds of the Papal States voted to join the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Papal States were reduced to Rome and its immediate environs still under the protection of France. The provinces of Naples and Sicily, which Garibaldi had conquered, also voted to join Sardinia. Victor Emmanuel's government controlled the whole peninsula except for Rome and for Venice, which was still part of the Austrian Empire. On March 17, 1861, an all-Italian parliament proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy, with Victor Emmanuel as the first king and Cavour as the first prime minister.

Venice was added to Italy in 1866 after Prussia defeated Austria in the Seven Weeks' War, in which Italy sided with Prussia; Venice was its reward. Then, in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon III withdrew his troops from Rome. With the city of Rome and the remaining Papal States left unprotected, Italian troops moved into Rome without opposition. Rome voted for union with Italy in October 1870 and, in July 1871, Rome became the capital of a united Italy.


"Italian Unification," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


© 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation.

All rights reserved.